Gerrit Cole believes cutting his hair is worth it to sign with the Yankees, but not every free agent target has felt or will feel the same.
The New York Yankees got their man. Just because they’re thrilled to dole out a whopping $324 million to Gerrit Cole over the next five years, though, doesn’t mean the Yankees are comfortable with their new ace being himself.
The team’s wildly outdated “appearance policy,” remember, prohibits players from wearing long hair and outright bans any facial hair other than mustaches. For Cole, apparently, shaving his flowing locks and bushy beard for the largest contract ever afforded to a pitcher is a small price to pay.
But that hasn’t been the case for other marquee free agents New York has chased in the past. Worse, inevitable media coverage of another newly signed superstar altering his appearance to fit the team’s antiquated rules could lead to future targets turning the Yankees down.
The policy was implemented opening day 1973, when legendary owner George Steinbrenner, who had just bought the franchise, was on hand at Yankee Stadium to watch his team play for the first time. Noticing that several players’ long hair covered their jersey numbers, Steinbrenner demanded they cut their hair, shortly thereafter coming up with the policy that’s still in place today.
New York star Don Mattingly openly opposed the rules upon joining the team in 1982. Once he was removed from the starting lineup and began being subjected to fines for his refusal to comply, Mattingly ultimately gave in.
Lou Piniella challenged the policy when he was named Yankees manager four years later, even invoking Jesus’ long hair in a conversation with Steinbrenner about abolishing it. In response, Steinbrenner famously walked Piniella to a pond just beyond left field. He asked, according to the New York Post:
You see that pond, Lou? It’s about seven to eight feet deep. If you can walk across it, you can wear your hair as long as you want.
The policy came under indirect legal scrutiny earlier this year when New York became the second state to ban discrimination based on natural hairstyles. If a player of color ever challenges the late Steinbrenner’s edict of a clean-shaven, closely shorn look, it would very likely be rendered unlawful.
Such a ruling would be objectively beneficial to the Yankees in the short and long-term. They were able to land a team-changing talent like Cole with the policy in place, but it goes without saying that other players disgusted with New York’s ongoing adherence to Steinbrenner’s policy won’t consider the Bronx Bombers in free agency.
It wouldn’t be the first time, either.
In 2013, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman casually acknowledged that star free-agent closer Brian Wilson had already ruled out New York because “the beard stays on.” A few months earlier, Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price said he would force his way out of New York if ever traded to the Yankees because he’s a “grown man” and the appearance policy is a “joke.”
While the team’s decision to elect against going after Bryce Harper in free agency last year was mostly chalked up to positional redundancies, maybe foreknowledge that he’d refuse to trim his trademark beard played a part in that choice. The fact it’s a possibility proves just how self-defeating New York’s policy remains.
It didn’t hurt them with Cole, and other star free agents have happily tweaked their looks upon donning pinstripes.
But the appearance policy will again be in the headlines whenever he decides to honor it. Here’s hoping that renewed attention forces the Yankees to finally make a change.